Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forrest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, and Mads Mikkelsen with Jimmy Smits and Genevieve O’Reilly
Runtime: 134 minutes
Star Wars has been with me my entire life. First seeing Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope at the tender age of 2 and then attending a movie theater for the first time to see Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi that same year set me on a path that I have never strayed from. Other obsessions have come and many have gone, some have stuck around (Batman) and others have stuck around but lessened in intensity (Star Trek and comics in general), but Star Wars has remained constant. I give the prequels much more leniency than they deserve, and I was (am) head-over-heels for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. And even though I’ve been writing about film off and on for 13-14 years and consistently for the last 3, I’ve never been able to bring myself to write about any Star Wars film (I did review the Star Wars Holiday Special, but that doesn’t count), largely because it is the one franchise that I have never been truly able to look at with any other eyes than that of an awestruck child. I love them, warts and all. So it is with that in mind that my adult self attempts to wrest control from my inner child for a little while to write this.
The story starts with a prologue, not an opening crawl as is the fashion with the Saga films (the numbered films, which this is not one), set in 4 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin, where the first Death Star was destroyed and marked the beginning of the calendar for the New Republic), so it’s 15 years before the events of Episode IV. Energy scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), his wife Lyra (Valene Kane) and their 7-year-old daughter Jyn (she was born near the beginning of the Clone Wars, which lasted 3 years, and this is 4 years after the creation of the Empire and in this scene played by Beau Gadsdon) have been hiding from the Empire in general and Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) specifically for about a year or two (for a full account of how Galen, a pacifist energy scientist was roped into researching the Death Star’s superweapon, read Catalyst: A Rogue One Story by James Luceno, that covers the time just before Jyn’s birth to just after they escape Coruscant). So…Krennic tracks him down to ‘recruit’ him back into the weapons program, with the aid of a squad of Death Troopers. Galen goes with Krennic after Lyra is shot and Jyn hides until their old friend (and the man who got them off Coruscant) Saw Gerrerra (Forrest Whitaker, playing a character first introduced in the fifth season of The Clone Wars animated TV show. Saw was trained in guerilla warfare by none other than Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ahsoka Tano and Clone Captain Rex), who then raised her.
Flash forward 15 years, to 0 BBY (days before the events of Episode IV) to Jyn being rescued by the Rebellion and recruited to find her father after the Rebels learn of the construction of the Death Star. She and Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), with his reprogrammed Imperial droid K2-SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) go to Jedah, an embattled world being stripped of their Kyber Crystals (the crystals used to power lightsabers) and meet Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who were Guardians of the Whills (I can’t go into who the Whills are/were here, that would take much too long…perhaps in another piece) and now without their temple, they don’t have much to do. The group is taken to Saw’s fortress and meet up with Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial pilot who has defected to bring a message from Galen to Saw. Jyn is reunited with Saw and sees the message from her father telling her to get the Death Star plans from Scarif to exploit a weakness that he has built into the system to make it possible to destroy it, ultimately ending about 10 minutes before the beginning of Episode IV.
To go on from there would be spoiling a film with lots of unexpected twists. I actually fear I may have detailed too much. This is why I have always hesitated in writing reviews of Star Wars films, because I’m so entrenched in the lore that I want to explain what isn’t spelled out.
The script, by Chris Weitz (who adapted About a Boy, as well as The Golden Compass and not so much to his credit, The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and the 2015 live-action Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (who wrote the first three Jason Bourne films as well as writing and directing Michael Clayton) from a story by ILM supervisor John Knoll and Gary Whitta, does a lot of heavy lifting, as most Star Wars scripts do. They place us on worlds we haven’t seen before and bear full witness to what the Empire has been doing to worlds that suit their needs, stripping them of their resources and laying waste to them. In the past, you had to turn to the extended universe novels to know what the Empire was up do during these years, but now we can actually see it. The create characters that are worth caring about, each one good enough and interesting enough to have their own movies, really. They form a quick bond and are all willing to go to Hell and back for each other by the end. The screenplay shows a galaxy at war in a way we hadn’t seen before. We aren’t tied to the story of the Skywalkers here, just the plight of oppressed people fighting back against further subjugation, willing to give all just to free the galaxy of fear and terror.
Director Gareth Edwards, who had previously directed a moderately successful indie picture Safety Not Guaranteed before being tapped to direct Godzilla in 2014, takes the grittiness of the screenplay and marvelously translates it visually. There is dirt on these characters faces and blood on their hands. He populates the visuals with countless Easter Eggs (several from the animated series Star Wars Rebels, like the ship used in the show, The Ghost, appearing at least three times, albeit briefly and General syndulla being paged, a reference to Hera Syndulla, the captain of the Ghost, as well as seeing Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba, the Cantina patrons who ‘don’t like’ Luke in Episode IV) as well as a sense of realism in seeing how bad these war zones are. Edwards pulls no punches and creates a movie as visually engaging as the overall storyline. It was also amazing to see Darth Vader do the things we’ve only been able to read about in books and comics heretofore.
The cast is all spectacular, with Felicity Jones stepping into a leading role quite well. Tudyk is great as always providing some much needed comic relief and the pairing of Yen and Jiang is fantastic. Luna stands out as well, and it was great to see Whitaker’s take on Saw. It was also nice to see Smits and O’Reilly reprising their prequel roles as Bail Organa and Mon Mothma (though much of O’Reilly’s Episode III material was cut from the final film).
There is one thing that does need to be addressed, and that is the appearance of a couple of characters from Episode IV that you wouldn’t think it possible for them to be in Rogue One. One is Governor Tarkin, and the other I’ll leave nameless. Governor Tarkin was played in Episode IV by the great British actor Peter Cushing, who had been a mainstay in British film for many years at that point, best known for playing Professor Von Helsing in the Hammer Studios Dracula series (which featured Christopher Lee as Dracula) as well as in their Frankenstein films. Cushing died in 1994, so to see his face digitally imposed on actor Guy Henry was jarring to say the least. Not only was his face used, but his voice was modulated to be Cushing as well. It’s reasonably well done, and groundbreaking considering this kind of digital replacement had only really been used to mask stunt doubles (something used on Christopher Lee’s double during the lightsaber battles in Episode II and Episode III). This, and the other character this is used for, enter into what is known as the Uncanny Valley, a term used in animation that describes when something is incredibly lifelike but we still know isn’t quite real. Use of this technique to the degree that it was (Tarkin is a main character in the film) blows the doors off what we thought was possible with not just these off-shoots from the Star Wars Saga, but other films as well. We saw versions of it in other films that used a similar technique to de-age stars so they could be seen years prior without having to approximate an actor with someone else (the beginning of Ant-Man is a prime example), and now we have a main role occupied by an actor who has been dead for 22 years.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story goes a long way to showing the plight of the rebellion, as well as its desperation and infighting, that we never got to see before. This is a rebellion that hasn’t yet started a war with the Empire, which is the rebellion we are used to. The chances they take, or are forced to take because of a headstrong young woman who just wants to save her father and then to see his plan through, are harrowing and made real by Weitz, Gilroy and Edwards. We feel the struggle and the pain of these characters, understand their drive and their sacrifices and are with them to the bitter end. If this is where the stand-alone expanded film universe of Star Wars is headed, I’m all in (as I likely would have been no matter what). Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is everything that could have been hoped for and more, adding depth and more meaning to the original films and giving a wide berth for what is to come.